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Warhol, Andy - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Andy Warhol, Social and Economic Impact

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Artist, filmmaker, and writer Andy Warhol was one of the heroes of counterculture society during the late 1960s and 1970s. His influence soared far beyond the confines of museums and art galleries. Warhol’s work appropriated the images of American popular culture for the purposes of high art, creating portraits that celebrated a superficial and sometimes violent society. He was obsessed with personal fame and wealth and was a fixture on the New York celebrity scene for almost three decades.

At his death in 1987, Andy Warhol was a multimillionaire who had used the techniques of mass production to create an enormous output of art and photography. People who had no interest in art recognized him instantly, and virtually no one in the American artistic community was indifferent to his work. A London Times reporter noted: “If an artist is to be judged by his impact on the popular consciousness, then Warhol was the Michelangelo of his age.” He is perhaps best remembered for his oft-quoted quip, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

Personal Life

The details of Warhol’s personal history are somewhat shrouded in mystery and myth. Most of his biographers agree that he was born on August 6, 1928, although some sources say 1927, 1930, or 1931. Warhol himself once said, “I never give my background, and anyway, I make it all up differently every time I’m asked.” His father, Ondrej Warhola, arrived in the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1912, and in 1921 he sent for Warhol’s mother, Julia (Zavacky) Warhola. Ondrej Warhola did construction work at first, then later toiled as a coal miner.

Andy Warhol was a high-strung child who suffered from St. Vitus’ Dance, a nervous disorder characterized by a lack of coordination and spastic movements of the arms, legs, and facial muscles. His physical frailty and extremely pale complexion made him a target of abuse and cruel teasing from his peers. When he was 14 years old, his father died. Despite the financial hardship this caused, Warhol was able to come up with the tuition money to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), where he majored in pictorial design. It was while he was still a student that he made his first mark in the world of art with a shocking painting titled, “The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

Career Details

Following his graduation from college in 1949, Warhol moved to New York City to pursue a career in commercial art. He had only been creating advertising displays for three months when he decided to take some of his drawings to Glamour magazine. Impressed with his work, Glamour commissioned him to make some drawings of shoes for an article entitled “Success Is a Job in New York.” In the publication credits, the magazine mistakenly dropped the “a” from Warhola, and thus Andy Warhola became Andy Warhol. By the mid-1950s Warhol was one of the best-paid commercial artists in New York, with clients such as Tiffany’s, I. Miller shoes, Vogue, and Bonwit Teller.

By 1960 Warhol was financially secure and ready to give up his career in commercial art for something new. So he jumped into—and in many ways helped create—the Pop Art movement. Pop Art was a revolt against the Abstract Expressionist style, which uses blended images intended to stretch the imagination. Pop Art, on the other hand, offers instantly recognizable images of far less serious subjects.

Warhol painted comic book characters such as Dick Tracy, Popeye, and Superman. He also painted everyday objects of various kinds, including Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell soup cans, and money. In addition, he did memorable portraits of actress Marilyn Monroe and singer Elvis Presley. After opening exhibitions in 1962 in Los Angeles and New York featuring his now famous “Campbell Soup Cans,” Warhol became the dominant symbol of Pop Art culture.

In the early 1960s Warhol opened a studio known as the Factory where he and his assistants perfected silk-screening techniques that enabled him to produce identical prints in mass quantities. He also created numerous experimental movies at the Factory. So-called “underground” films such as Sleep and Eat were deliberately boring and ordinary, and sometimes ran for up to 24 hours. His movie Empire, for instance, which was released in 1965, featured New York City’s Empire State Building viewed from the same unmoving camera angle over an eight-hour period.

The Factory soon became a center of pop culture, attracting a wide variety of people from both the art and performing worlds. Warhol used some of these people in his movies and liked to refer to them as his “superstars.” Drug use was common among those who frequented the Factory, but Warhol himself rarely participated.

Warhol released numerous movies during the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1968 he dealt with the taboo subject of homosexuality in his film Lonesome Cowboys. He also produced two films that are considered early examples of modern pornographic filmmaking, Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970). In 1974 he generated some commercial interest with his movies Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula. In total, he was involved in more than 60 film projects between 1963 and 1974.

Warhol was also part of the rock music scene thanks to his involvement with a rock band known as the Velvet Underground, formed by Lou Reed and John Cale. He introduced model and actress Nico to the band members, and she ended up singing on their debut album. Warhol traveled the country with the Velvet Underground and later developed and produced a spectacular multimedia light show called “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” that featured the band.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Warhol dabbled in publishing as co-founder of Interview magazine. It enjoyed a good deal of success during the 1970s. By then, however, Warhol had turned over the reins to someone else, eager to move on to his next project. He was also associated in some way with nine books during his career. One of the most popular was The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, which was published in 1975.

In 1968 Warhol’s life almost came to a violent end when Valerie Solanis, a member of his entourage, shot him in the chest and abdomen at point-blank range. The artist survived, but only after spending two months in the hospital. Solanis turned herself in to authorities and was placed in a mental hospital. Later, she was sentenced to three years in prison.

During the 1970s, Warhol continued with his painting, focusing mostly on portraits of famous people and personal friends. Meanwhile, he remained at the center of pop culture and the art community throughout the last decade of his life. Ironically, however, it was death that brought him his greatest fame. Warhol succumbed unexpectedly to heart failure on February 22, 1987, after undergoing routine gall bladder surgery. His funeral, held in New York City, was a major event. According to a New Yorker correspondent, “There were so many celebrities among the more than 2,000 mourners that traffic on Fifth Avenue was disrupted by spectators and photographers trying to get a glimpse of them. No other twentieth-century artist—not even Picasso—could have drawn this sort of crowd, and it is difficult to think of any other public personality who could have done so, either.”

Chronology: Andy Warhol

1928: Born.

1949: Entered field of commercial art.

1956: Drawings featured in shows at the Bodley Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art.

1957: Shoe advertisement won the Art Directors’ Club Medal.

1960: Joined the Pop Art movement.

1962: Opened exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York featuring paintings of Campbell soup cans.

1963: Films Sleep and Eat were released.

1968: Film Flesh was released.

1974: Films Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein were released.

1975: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again published.

1987: Died.

Social and Economic Impact

While the long-term relevance of Warhol’s work may be subject to dispute, his impact on the pop culture of his time is not. He offered the public something they had never experienced before, creating seemingly emotionless works based on the most mundane things in life. Even when he depicted emotionally charged or tragic events, such as his “Disaster” scenes of automobile accidents, electric chairs, and race riots, he somehow rendered them without a hint of passion. At first, some observers dismissed them as tacky and heartless. Later interpretations acknowledged the “Disaster” works as critical statements about the offhanded inhumanity prevalent in a society where people commonly witness tragedy without feeling or emotion.

Andy Warhol captured the attention of an entire generation. Some worshipped his every painting, picture, movie, and appearance. Others called him vulgar, strange, or just inconsequential. During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Warhol was the dominant symbol of the American counterculture. In an article published in Esquire magazine, Julie Baumgold, a woman who knew Warhol, offered the following reflections on him and his era: “[It] was a time of leather plants and dresses that swung or hung stiffly and parties with plastic chairs and red lights Then, too, there were large plastic Baggies of pills and people with painted faces and raccoon eyes, jabbing needles through their jeans, moving in slow motion through curtains of beads And through it all there was Andy Warhol, slumped on a sofa, the absent soul, watching, always watching, taping, always taping.”

Since his death, there has been a tremendous amount of interest in the meaning of Warhol’s life and work. Was he simply the “absent soul” who surrounded himself with the excesses of his time? Or was his very immersion in the modern culture somehow his strongest indictment against it? Answers to those questions continue to provoke debate.

Warner, Jack - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Jack Warner, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Ware, Caroline F. (1899–1990) - Economic History

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